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Overcoming the Distracted Mind

Every day we are bombarded by distractions. It can feel like our attention is being pulled in a million different directions at once. How can we enjoy the benefits of modern technology while maintaining focus, productivity and well-being? Luckily, we’ve got neuroscientists on our side to help us understand how our brains work and identify tools and techniques to help us stay focused, people like my good friend Adam Gazzaley and his colleague Larry Rosen.

Adam and Larry have recently published a book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World. I convinced Adam to share some of their work, included below. If you like what you read, you might be interested in our upcoming Tea Talk on December 8 at our Yerba Buena Location.

Excerpt from The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World by Adam Gazzaley

We have come to believe that the human brain is a master navigator of the river of information that rages steadily all around us. And yet we often feel challenged when trying to fulfill even fairly simple goals. This is the result of interference—both distractions from irrelevant information and interruptions by our attempts to simultaneously pursue multiple goals. Many of you may now be glancing accusingly at your mobile phone. But before we place any blame on this potential culprit, it is critical to understand that our sensitivity to interference, or what we will refer to throughout this book as “the Distracted Mind,” was not born out of modern technology. Rather, it is a fundamental vulnerability of our brain.

Engaging our attention with the highest level of selectivity is critical for us to function effectively in the complex environments that we inhabit. Our brain simply does not have the infinite parallel processing resources needed to simultaneously receive and interpret all the information we are exposed to at every moment. And so, we need to rapidly fire our cognitive resources, like arrows, at the targets selected to be most relevant to our goals. Simultaneously, we must block out the vast, rapidly changing stream of goal-irrelevant information that flows around us.

All complex systems are susceptible to interference, including the functioning of our cars, laptops, 747s, and the Hubble Telescope. The opportunity for interference to degrade any system’s performance seems to scale with its complexity. When it comes to the human brain, undeniably the most complex system in the known universe, it should thus come as no surprise that it is extremely sensitive to interference at many levels. Indeed, the reason why goal interference in particular is so prominent in our lives is the inherent complexity of our goals and the limitations we have in fulfilling them. Our ability to establish high-level goals is arguably the pinnacle of human brain evolution. Complex, interwoven, time-delayed, and often shared goals are what allow us humans to exert an unprecedented influence over how we interact with the world around us, navigating its multifaceted environments based on our decisions rather than reflexive responses to our surroundings. Our impressive goal-setting abilities have permitted the remarkable development of our cultures, communities, and societies and have enabled us to create complex human constructs, such as art, language, music, and technology. The sheer magnitude of our impressive goal-setting abilities has resulted in the conditions necessary for goal interference to exist in the first place.

Our proficiency in setting goals is mediated by a collection of cognitive abilities that are widely known as “executive functions,” a set of skills that include evaluation, decision making, organization, and planning. But goal setting is only half the battle. We also need specialized processes to enact all those lofty goals. Our ability to effectively carry out our goals is dependent on an assemblage of related cognitive abilities that we will refer to throughout this book as “cognitive control.” This includes attention, working memory, and goal management. Note that our ability to set high-level goals does not necessarily mean that it is inevitable that we are overwhelmed by goal interference. It is conceivable that the goal-enactment abilities of our brain evolved alongside our goal-setting abilities to offset any negative impact of goal interference. But this is not what seems to have happened. Our cognitive control abilities that are necessary for the enactment of our goals have not evolved to the same degree as the executive functions required for goal setting. Indeed, the fundamental limitations in our cognitive control abilities do not differ greatly from those observed in other primates, with whom we shared common ancestors tens of millions of years ago.

Our cognitive control is really quite limited: we have a restricted ability to distribute, divide, and sustain attention; actively hold detailed information in mind; and concurrently manage or even rapidly switch between competing goals. We can only speculate that if the neural processes of goal enactment evolved to a comparable degree as our goal-setting abilities, we would not be so encumbered by goal interference. If we could hold more information in mind and with higher fidelity, if we could cast a broader attentional net on the world around us and with greater sustainability, if we could simultaneously engage in multiple demanding tasks and transition more efficiently between them, we would not be so easily distracted and interrupted. In many ways, we are ancient brains in a high-tech world.

We can visualize this as a conflict between a mighty force, represented by our goals, which collides head on with a powerful barrier, represented by the limitations to our cognitive control. The conflict is between our goal-setting abilities, which are so highly evolved, driving us to interact in high-interference environments to accomplish our goals, and our goal-enactment abilities, which have not evolved much at all from our primitive ancestors, representing fundamental limitations in our ability to process information. It is this conflict that results in goal interference, and generates a palpable tension in our minds—a tension between what we want to do and what we can do. Your awareness of this conflict, even if only at a subconscious level, is likely what led you to pick up this book in the first place. That, and a dawning realization that this conflict is escalating into a full- scale war, as modern technological advancements worsen goal interference to further besiege the Distracted Mind.

Humans have always lived in a complex world, one rich with enticing distractions and teeming with countless interruptions via alternative activities that threaten to bar us from accomplishing our goals. While goal interference has likely existed for as long as modern humans have walked the Earth, the last several decades have witnessed profound changes: The Information Age has emerged on the heels of modern technological breakthroughs in computers, media, and communication. This latest stage in human history may have been sparked by the digital revolution, but the rise of personal computers, the Internet, smartphones, and tablets is really only the surface. The true core of the change to our mental landscape is that we are experiencing an elevation of information itself to the level of the ultimate commodity. This has fueled an ever-expanding explosion in the variety and accessibility of technologies with enticing sounds, compelling visuals, and insistent vibrations that tug at our attention while our brains attempt to juggle multiple streams of competing information.

As we see it, three major technology breakthroughs have been monumental game changers in our current lifetime: the Internet, social media, and smartphones. By game changers we mean technologies that drive our interference-inducing behaviors—both internally and externally—and which ultimately aggravate our Distracted Minds. First, the web made it possible for anyone to access any information at any time. Second, it enabled email, which made communication virtually instantaneous and free. Third, it gave rise to mobile computing and the ability to access information from any location. We no longer need to remember facts, we can simply Google them. Just think how many times a day you are in need of some fact and instead of searching your brain to recall whether you know that fact and, if so, unearthing it from memory, you simply press a few keys (or more likely tap a few locations on your smartphone screen) and you have the answer. Even easier, you can ask Siri and she will find the answer for you.

Our technology-rich world has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. While on the one hand we have access to information or people anywhere at any time, on the other hand we find our attention constantly drawn by the rich, multisensory, technological environments. It all started with the graphical user interface that took us from the flat, two-dimensional text-based environment that operated on a line-by-line basis similar to a typewriter, to a small picture depicting an operation or program. From there it was a short hop to a completely multisensory world appealing to all of our visual, auditory, and tactile or kinesthetic senses. We now see videos in high definition, often in simulated 3D. We hear high-definition stereo sounds that feel as crisp as sounds in the real world. Our devices vibrate, shake, rattle, and roll, and our attention is captured. It is no accident that we now attach specific ringtones and vibrations to certain people to grab our attention. Our technology continues to find ways to attract our attention because this is what brings “eyeballs,” and the common marketing wisdom is that eyeballs bring money. As you glance at your iPhone you see little red circles with white numbers indicating that something awaits you: four unread email messages, ten Facebook notifications, and so many reminders that your mind is overwhelmed with which icon to tap first. Your iPad does the same, as does your laptop, which particularly taunts you with numerical notifications of unread messages, flashing icons telling you that you need to back up your computer files, and on and on.

One interesting aspect of this penchant for combining tasks is that we seem to have lost the ability to single task. Glance around a restaurant, look at people walking on a city street, pay attention to people waiting in line for a movie or the theater, and you will see busily tapping fingers. We act as though we are no longer interested in or able to stay idle and simply do nothing. We appear to care more about the people who are available through our devices than those who are right in front of our faces. And perhaps more critically, we appear to have lost the ability to simply be alone with our thoughts.

Finally, the introduction of electronic communication modalities into the workplace has changed more than just our workday expectations. Employees, for the most part, are now expected to respond to afterhours communiqués as rapidly as they do to workplace messages. Essentially, the workplace has become, owing to our new response time expectations, a 24/7 experience. And, as we have said before, even vacations do not allow us to escape from being “always on, always available.”

Buy the Book / Buy Tickets to the Tea Talk (ticket includes a copy of the book)

About the Authors

Adam Gazzaley is Professor in the Departments of Neurology, Physiology, and Psychiatry at the University of Calfornia, San Francisco, where he is also Founding Director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center, Neuroscape Lab, and the Gazzaley Lab. Recipient of the 2015 Society for Neuroscience Science Educator Award, he wrote and hosted the nationally televised PBS special “The Distracted Mind with Dr. Adam Gazzaley.”

Larry D. Rosen is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is a blogger for Psychology Today and the author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us and six other books.

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